January has few things going for it (other than the 29th, the day I was born). It’s cold, it’s dark, and there are still upwards of two months before it gets any warmer or lighter. Basketball teams and hockey teams have settled into the mires of their seasons, when the games don’t really matter (like they do in the final month), but the shine has worn off (usually right after Christmas). College football has virtually ended, and college basketball is two months away from mattering. Baseball’s three months away. And the movies that come out are always the worst, the projects movie studios have the lowest of low expectations for. January is depressing.
But there is one shining exception: playoff football. The NFL gets sifted from 32 teams to the top 12, who are then pitted against each other in a win-or-go-home style whose brevity endows each game with simultaneous auras of majesty and mystery. The long series of hockey, baseball and basketball make it so that the better team wins most of the time (not necessarily the higher-seeded, but the better in overall talent-level). But in football, a game of shifting momentum, a few good plays by a weaker team can equal an upset. How many times have we seen even a single ill-timed turnover kill a team in the playoffs? That’s how quickly a playoff football game can turn against a team.
Four playoff games will take place over the next 48 hours, all for the right to take on a top-two team on its home soil. How these games will play out is anyone’s guess. It used to be that division winners had a distinct advantage over wild-card teams, winning 41 of 56 games from 1990-2003. But since 2004, the wild-cards have had a slight advantage, going 13-11. Essentially, simple mathematics say each game is a coin-flip (54-46). And the division winners are so close to the wild cards in terms of overall talent that really any game could go any way. With that in mind, here are my picks:
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 4:30): Remember how I just said that these games are each a coin flip? Well, here’s where I totally go back on myself. This game isn’t a coin flip. Coin flips have better odds. The Seattle Seahawks are a 7-9 team. They won less than 50 percent of their regular season. It’s a travesty that they made the playoffs and two NFC teams with 10 wins did not. This is the downside to the NFL’s vaunted “parity:” it gives every team a shot, but it perpetuates a cycle of mediocrity. Instead of building a team that is actually, you know, good, NFC West teams only have to build teams good enough to beat the other NFC West teams, who are all worse. There’s little that can be said for the Seahawks. They’re 19th in the NFL in passing and 31st in rushing (more important in the playoffs). Their defense, 21st in opponent rushing and 27th in opponent passing, allows six more points than they score. On top of all of that, they give the ball away twice as often as they take it away, with the second-worst turnover differential in the NFC. These guys, quite simply, suck. And they’re going against a defending Super Bowl champion that won as many games as the second-seeded Chicago Bears. The Saints have the third-highest passing offense in the NFL, and Drew Brees is the most accurate quarterback in the NFL. Brees also leads the NFC in touchdown passes and yards per game. Brees is going to eat the Seahawks defense alive. If that alone weren’t enough, the Saints also have the fourth best passing defense in the NFL. Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks lone offensive weapon since they have no running game, only cracks the top 10 in one NFL statistic: most interceptions. The Saints should win this game for the good of the NFL. The thought of a sub-.500 team going deep into the playoffs should sicken every fan not from Seattle. Pick: Saints.
New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 8): Rex Ryan has never beaten Peyton Manning in a game that’s mattered. His lone victory came in a Week 17, rest-your-starters game that Manning barely played. When it’s actually mattered, Manning has utterly destroyed these Ryan defenses. The Colts will score points, and the Jets will not. In his last four games played, Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes and two picks. The Colts went 4-0 in those games, bumping up to a #3 seed that means they won’t have to play the Patriots in the AFC divisional round. Mark Sanchez, in his last four games played, threw one touchdown and five interceptions. The Jets went 1-3 in those four games. Manning has simply had the better season than Sanchez, outranking him statistically in every category except for interceptions. Manning is also so good at reading blitzes and defenses that the Jets will have a hard time getting pressure on him. Sanchez has not enjoyed the same protection, getting sacked 11 more times. The Jets lone chance lies in their ability to run the football (fourth overall). But LaDainian Tomlinson has had exactly one postseason game in which he’s rushed for over 100 yards, and Shonn Greene rushed for just 41 yards last year in Indianapolis. Another choke-job seems likely. The Jets may have the better defense (third against the run, sixth against the pass), but they are still pretenders to the thrown, and they will be shown as such on Saturday. Pick: Colts.
Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 1): This game will be about strength versus strength. The Chiefs have the best rushing offense in the NFL. The Ravens have the fourth best defense. Whichever side blinks first is going to lose this game. The two quarterbacks have had remarkably similar seasons. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco is slightly more accurate (62.6 completion percentage vs. 58.2) and throws a bit more per game (226 yards per game vs 208), but the Chiefs’ Matt Cassel has a slightly better touchdown interception ratio (27-7 vs. 25-10). Their quarterback ratings are nearly identical (93.6 vs. 93.0). The key to this game may lie in the sack differential. Flacco has been sacked 40 times, or 2.5 per game. Cassell, meanwhile, has only been sacked 26 times, or 1.6 per game. Sacks lead to longer-yardage downs, which in turn leads to fewer first downs and more punts from deeper in one’s own territory. The Ravens offense may face more third-and-longs, where they are just a middle-of-the-road team (16th in the NFL at a 39.0 third-down conversion rate), and this may give the Chiefs offense better starting field-position on their drives. This should be a close one, but if the Chiefs can start further up-field, they can grind the ball out with more runs. This will tire out the Baltimore defense, leading to extended Kansas City drives that will eat up clock time while still putting up points. It might come down to the final drive of the game, but the home team should win. Pick: Chiefs.
Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 4:30): This game poses an interesting question: will Eagles quarterback Michael Vick have more sacks in his face on Sunday than he did in prison? On the one hand, the Packers having recorded more sacks than any other NFC team (47.0). On the other hand, it was prison, where the most common hobby is rape. In all seriousness, Vick has had a fantastic season, ranking in the NFC’s top 10 in most statistical categories, including second in the NFC with a quarterback rating of 100.2. Problem is, the guy at #1 in the NFC is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who outranks Vick in several key categories, including yards per game and touchdown passes. The Packers pass better than the Eagles do, but Philadelphia compliments a solid-enough passing game (ninth in the NFL) with the fifth-best rushing game in the league. Usually, stronger rushing teams win in the playoffs, but a strong Packers pass defense (fifth in the NFL, with two shutdown cornerbacks in Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson) is going to force the Eagles to run more than they want to. Their best running back is LeSean McCoy, who averages just 72.0 yards per game. Vick has accumulated more rushing yards and more rushing touchdowns. As is always the case, Vick will be the primary rusher as well as passer, meaning he will be at the mercy of Green Bay’s ferocious linemen and linebackers. The sociopathic Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews is going to make sure Vick feels every tackle. The Packers allow the fewest points in the NFC (15.0 per game) because their secondary can prevent big plays and their front is almost impenetrable. Philadelphia’s defense is only 15th in passing and rushing, and 21st in scoring. Vick may be able to manufacture some points, but it’s gonna hurt doing so. The Packers are going to be hungrier than the Eagles for a win on Sunday. The Packers were picked by many before the regular season to go the playoffs, but injuries and mental errors nearly kept them from the postseason at all. Vick, meanwhile, is playing with house money in Philadelphia, having in one season made every fan forget both his own past and Donovan McNabb. If he doesn’t win in his first year as an Eagle, fans will forgive him and start licking their chops for next season. Rodgers, meanwhile, doesn’t have that luxury. Pick: Packers.
So there you have it: two road wins, two home wins. Basically, a coin flip.